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  On Higher education
  For Hindustan Times


Higher Education: Need for a Revamp

         While students seem desperate for admission to colleges across the country these days, their presence in class rooms has been hard to ensure. Even as admission forms are sold in millions every year, reports of massive absenteeism also appear in most universities as soon as teaching begins. The creeping influence of globalization and privatization are further accentuating this paradox which needs urgent public debate and response today.

       Apparently colleges are serving several functions in our society of which learning is not the most cherished one. More relevant, for the polity, seems to be their function as a parking lot for the jobless and as the only space for socialisation for youngsters coming from conservative milieus. But to appreciate why even pupils who would throng coaching centres now show little keenness for college lectures we need to remember that it is not just the picnicers but also serious students who are bunking classes to attend parallel courses in computers, media, fashion etc.

      The reality is that an average youngster who merely concentrates on the University course has a bleak future. Indeed, a well meaning teacher may himself advise the general pupil to miss classes since the university curriculum is of little use to millions who do not hope or wish to become teachers, researchers or journalists.  In any case, few really need to attend classes since marks can be obtained anyway through ample shortcuts in the aged examination system (even with fair means).

        In this context, the recent decision of Delhi University to revive the system of tutorials and internal assessment may help improve attendance to some extent. But, in the absence of radical changes in the curriculum, this may not take us far by itself. Pupils from affluent backgrounds may still compensate for curriculum’s deficiencies through various marketed courses. But those from the economically weaker sections, whom our state funded universities hope to help, may remain their worst victims.  

       In a way, it is embarrassing for the nation that few structural changes have been made in university curricula since the nineteenth century when the British evolved a system of learning aimed at producing brown sahebs and clerks rather than activists, entrepreneurs and innovators in large numbers. The same regimen of the three hour examination, emphasis on rote learning/ writing and a rigid division between academic and vocational streams as also the ‘arts’ and the sciences has continued in our education for more than a century despite the promising alternatives given by Gandhi, Tagore, Friere or, for that matter, Mao.

         Ideally, our education should have been overhauled after independence. But unlike Japan or China, Indian academics failed to carry through curriculum or examination reforms in any radical sense.  Though some Left intellectuals and bright scientists helped in improving books in certain subjects yet, the overarching colonial legacy of the classroom, text and the final exam remained unaltered.

       Meanwhile the domination of textual knowledge in our pedagogy seems to have been accepted on the premise that the  mastery of one ‘discipline’ may be sufficient for the  development of those intellectual skills which catalyse  the process  of learning in all spheres. However, detailed  research into the actual impact of a largely text focused education on generalisation of learning  capacities  seems scant. And significant  doubts  persist about this presumption since most of our graduates not only fail to find gainful employment but seldom carry even basic reading interests beyond college.

       It is true that extra curricular activities exist in  educational  institutions  but as they do not fetch marks in  our  exam oriented  system  they are seldom taken seriously  by pupils, parents or teachers. As a result, we end up producing  lakhs  of graduates annually who may be familiar with historic battles or Latin names of some species but  with little exposure to the fine arts, adventure or questions of ethics.

       In  this scenario, a lot may be  gained  by broadening the scope of formal education by giving a place to community work, sports, crafts and some exposure to fine arts in the main curriculum and assessing them along with academic disciplines on a regular basis rather than a three hour written exam alone.

      Isn’t it worth pondering that it is the ‘educated’ who are mostly unemployed in our country. Some are driven to committing suicides each year. It is true that the problem of unemployment has more to do with population and underdevelopment. Yet, have the educationists done all that they could to let colleges develop pupils in a wholesome manner ?

       Not only do most graduates happily gel with the rampant corruption in our public institutions but many are game today for terrorists, criminal activities and so on; perhaps more than the uneducated. While disciplining the teaching community for revitalizing education may be important, making the curriculum meaningful would itself be half the battle won. It is worth reflecting that while some of our graduates may be theoretically aware of chemical equations or gene mapping yet their capacity to offer simple first aid to an accident victim would be typically poor not to speak of their preparedness for the more serious challenges of life.

       A pedagogy that aims at developing personality as a whole instead of sharpening analytical and literary talents in isolation may not only be more interesting to many students but also more capable of tapping their multifarious talents and helping the underprivileged in competing with their articulate public school counterparts better.

        It is sad, presently, to see millions of students going through the rigmarole of graduation in thousands of mofussil colleges, chasing the mirage of a few thousand organized sector jobs for decades. Wouldn’t it be better if higher education also trained them for giving jobs to others instead of seeking one by encouraging innovations in agri-business, cooperatives, NGOs, small enterprises etc. In fact, entrepreneurship and community projects would be a useful check on textual learning too. Though it must be added that unless marks are allotted  for  project work in such areas, the attention  due to them would never materialise (as the disuse of the ‘socially useful and productive work’ course in high schools shows).

       At the same time, there is a definite need for the introduction of some mandatory papers in Human Sciences in the mushrooming vocational institutes to balance such market driven learning with continued humanistic education as seen in the IITs within our country. 

       Such a broadening of the curriculum at the undergraduate level, however, may increase the load of learning excessively on students. To balance this, texts must be simultaneously pruned and academic specialisation postponed to postgraduate studies except in select departments catering to those who may decide early on academic careers.

        These reforms may sound too radical for immediate implementation. In reality they have been long overdue. It is nothing but intellectual inertia which prevents us from giving to the youth what it needs rather than what we learnt under compulsion, years ago.


Devesh Vijay